Sandy’s Garden ... Portulaca Gilliesii

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

My word processor lives in a room which we call ‘the utility room’.

It houses the washing machine and the tumble-dryer as well as my word processor, my horticultural library and a variety of other everyday items … but a more pretentious person might call ‘the garden room’ since it faces south and offers a comprehensive overview of our back garden. It is carpeted and wallpapered, the wallpaper featuring a design based on illustrations of herbs taken, I understand, from a nineteenth century French gardening compendium. Right before my eyes if I lift them from the word processor’s screen is a drawing of a plant captioned ‘PORTULACA THELUSSONII … with one ‘L’ … in capital letters; and it occurred to me recently that I knew nothing at all about this plant.

Cue an internet search, which produced this succinct start to an entry on Wikipedia: “Portulaca (purslane) is the type genus of the flowering plant family Portulacaceae, comprising about 40-100 species found in the tropics and warm temperate regions. They are also known as moss roses.” A little further down the entry was a list of some of the best-known varieties of Portulaca, including Portulaca gilliesii. Now portulaca is a word taken straight from Latin and is the Roman name for a plant they called Portulaca oleraceae, the latter part of its name meaning ‘vegetable-like.’ But what about this varietal name ‘gilliesii’ which should, by convention, be the name of a person of significance in the horticultural world, normally during his … and yes, it is usually ‘his’ … lifetime?

Cue a second internet search to find this extract from a French compendium of plants: “Les nombreuses formes de Portulaca, aujourd’hui vulgaires en horticulture sous les noms de grandiflora et de Thellussonii [with two ‘ls], dérivent d’une espèce à fleurs simples, découverte par le botaniste écossais Gillies, non loin de Mendoza (république de la Plata), à l’est des Andes chiliennes. Introduite de grains par ce voyageur, elle fleurit d’abord, vers 1828, dans le jardin botanique de Glasgow (?), et fut décrite par le professeur Hooker sous le titre de P. grandiflora.” My rather rusty French translates this as: “The numerous species of Portulaca commonly grown nowadays under the specific names grandiflora or Thellussonii come from a single species discovered by the Scottish botanist Gillies in Mendoza in the republic of la Plata to the east of the Chilean Andes. This traveller introduced the seeds; and the plants have flowered, since about 1828, in the Glasgow Botanic Garden (?) and have been categorised by Professor Hooker as Portulaca grandiflora.” The question mark indicates that the writer was uncertain if Glasgow Botanic Garden was the correct location.

And Gillies? It’s time to trawl the internet again. “John Gillies, M.D. (1792–1834) was a Scottish naval surgeon who later became an explorer and botanist, travelling extensively in South America,” I learn from Wikipedia. “Educated at the University of Edinburgh, he served in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. Afflicted by tuberculosis, Gillies left the UK aged 28 for South America in the hope that the climate would improve his fragile health. He spent eight years there, mostly in Argentina, surviving wars, civil unrest, and chronic ill health, sending numerous plants to Hooker at the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew before returning in 1828. He died aged 42 at Edinburgh on 24 November 1834, his remains interred at Calton.” So it is more than possible that the first British portulaca were grown in the botanic gardens at Kew or the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh rather than in Glasgow. And what is Portulaca Thellussonii or Portulaca grandiflora - the ‘large-flowered’ portulaca? That will have to wait for another day!